Saturday, November 22, 2014 Heshvan 29, 5775

Pure Poetry

June 26, 2008 By:
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Though you may never have heard of it, Shirim: A Jewish Poetry Journal has hit its 25th year and, appropriately, has put out a special issue to celebrate.

Shirim appears semi-annually out of Long Beach, Calif., and is edited by Marc Dworkin. It has an informal look to it, with a distinct whiff of the countercultural ethic of the '60s and the alternative press movement, as well as a touch of the havurah spirit -- though by Jewish poetry, I don't think the editor means to confine it to religious modes of thinking.

That's all I know about the magazine -- or, at least, all I could glean from the issue I had in front of me. (I couldn't find a Web presence.) The 25th-anniversary edition does include items I know about, so I wasn't so handicapped in that regard.

The guest editor for the current issue is Merrill Leffler, whose work as an editor and a poet I've written about in the Exponent. This edition of Shirim is not only celebrating a quarter-century of its own publishing life, but also 40 years of Leffler's major editing project, the Dryad Press, which he runs pretty much on his own out of Tacoma Park, Md. (Dryad does have a Web site.)

In my book column for the paper, I've considered several of the powerful Holocaust memoirs Leffler has published over the years, as well as a clutch of poetry books he's put out, including a superb one by himself called Take Hold. All of this work is of the highest order and deserving of a wider readership.

In the special issue of Shirim, Leffler's included a number of the poets he's remained faithful to over the years -- Myra Sklarew, author of From the Backyard of the Diaspora; survivor Herman Taube; the brilliant Israeli poet Moshe Dor; and Rodger Kamenetz, whose Jew in the Lotus may have initiated the BuJew (Jewish Buddhists) phenomenon -- or, at least, codified it somewhat.

In addition to a generous sampling of poetry by these various and compelling writers, Leffler has prefaced the entire endeavor with an essay, which he began by posing the question: "What is a Jewish poem?"

"For 25 years now," he continued, "Marc Dworkin has been publishing hundreds and hundreds [of poems], identifiably Jewish in theme or subject matter or tone or diction or tropes, or allusions, or combinations thereof. Shirim has brought between its covers Jewish poetry from all over the world, from North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Israel. The magazine has had a remarkable run. It takes energy and will, with a mixture of nuttiness, if not a Don Quixotean madness, to keep a poetry mag going beyond its first couple of years, let alone five or 10 years. But 25? Oy, says Sancho Panza!"

As for the definition of a Jewish poem, Leffler let poet Sklarew proffer an answer in her "what is a jewish poem," which begins:

"does it wear a yarmulka

and tallis

does it live in the diaspora

and yearn for homeland"

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